Ignorance can promote democracy: study

Washington: Ignorance is bliss, it's often said, but it seems it can also promote democracy, a new study based on animal behaviour says.

Past research has found that strongly opinionated members can determine a group's consensus decision, even when they make up a small minority. But, a new research of animal behaviour now shows that adding ignorant or uninformed members to the group can counteract the minority's powerful influence and promote a more democratic outcome, LiveScience reported.

For the study, published in the journal Science, a team at the Princeton University in the US used several computer models to investigate the decision-making process in various animal groups when a majority wants to travel in one direction and a minority wants to go in another.

The researchers studies the group behaviour of fish as fish, like humans and other animals, have certain sensory biases. Reuters

When the strength of the two packs' preferences was equal, the group was much more likely to follow the majority. But when the minority had stronger feelings than the rest of the group about its direction, it was able to control the
decision, the researchers found.

When they added a third crowd that was ignorant of the options, the majority was able to spontaneously wrestle the decision back from the minority. "It's very counter-intuitive," said Iain Couzin, who led the study. "We previously assumed that uninformed individuals promote extremism by being easily exploited by the [strong] minority."

Couzin and his colleagues performed follow-up experiments with a school of freshwater fish to see how well their models apply to the real world. Using a group of golden shiners, the researchers trained two groups of the fish to associate a food reward with two different colour targets: one yellow, one blue.

The fish, like humans and other animals, have certain sensory biases, Couzin
explained. Just as humans have an innate reaction to the colour red, golden shiners are naturally attracted to yellow, so the fish trained to expect food by following yellow dots were more strongly drawn to their target than those trained with blue dots.

When researchers brought the two groups together and the yellow-target fish were in the minority (five yellow to six blue), the school of golden shiners followed the smaller group about 80 percent of the time. But when the researchers added five untrained fish to the mix, the group chose the majority's blue target half the time.

With 10 untrained fish, the group chose the blue target more than 60 percent of the time, showing that ignorant individuals really can promote a more democratic decision. "There are fundamental parallels between decisions in
groups and neural decision-making," Couzin said. "There's likely to be a whole bunch of neurons that don’t have information and can be persuaded by other neurons."

Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington evolutionary biologist who was not involved in the research, said he was surprised by the results and is curious to see what happens when there are more than two options available. "The dynamics between groups can get extremely complicated."


Published Date: Dec 19, 2011 05:07 pm | Updated Date: Dec 19, 2011 05:07 pm